Businesses, schools hit it off

by Jim Boyle

If you had to describe this past week’s introductory meeting between school officials and area manufacturers as a first date, you could say it ended with a passionate kiss and an agreement to meet again.

Both groups and their matchmakers — the economic development departments at four cities in Sherburne County — left the 7 a.m. meeting feeling a sense of excitement and promise.

Clay Wilfahrt, the city of Elk River’s assistant director of economic development who got representatives of Elk River schools at the table, was still pumped  later that day.  “It was such a great tone setter to walk out and see so many people buzzing,” Wilfahrt said.

There’s a lot of work to be done to address a labor shortage in skilled positions working with automation, robotics and such. It’s a problem both locally and nationally.

One of the nation’s largest manufacturers at a recent symposium estimated this country is 900 machine shops short of fulfilling its needs alone over the next 20 years. In Elk River there are 80 manufacturers, and all seem to feel the effects of the skilled labor shortage in a field that has largely fallen out of favor with Generations X and Y.

Manufacturers, who say they battle an image problem created by the dungeons of old that etched a dark and dirty picture in people’s minds, have welcomed the Sherburne County Manufacturers Connection being spearheaded by people like Wilfahrt.

It has been the goal Annie Deckert, the city director of economic development, and Wilfahrt to get these groups together to address common concerns and increase interest in manufacturing careers.

“This is a huge win under the economic development belt,” Deckert said of connecting manufacturers with our high schools and middle schools. The program should lead nicely into Minnesota’s Manufacturing Week, slated for Oct. 22–28.

One goal will be to give high school kids a chance to tour Sherburne County manufacturers. The city of Elk River is also working with local manufacturers to partner and provide open houses to the public.

Elk River has more than 60 manufacturers, who employ more than 900 people. They make things such as the Jack Link’s wrappers on beef jerky (Quality Label) to plastic sailboats in Great Clips Salons across the nation (Classic Acrylics).

Businesses such as Alliance Machine, M&M Machine and Faribault Foods have been participants in the Sherburne County Manufacturers Connection. So have Elk River, Princeton, Becker and Big Lake schools.

Tuesday’s meeting was held at Glenn Metalcraft in Princeton. It was the third in a series of meetings between manufacturers and community development and economic development departments in Elk River, Big Lake, Becker and Princeton.

Up to this week it has been informational in nature. All things seemed to point to a meeting with schools and manufacturers.

Manufacturers locally and across the nation are grappling with a workforce shortage. School administrators are trying to figure out the best possible plan of action for this brave new world they find themselves in, while at the same time make decisions about the costly nature of shop classes.

“My dream is to influence some of these guys coming out of high school that don’t have a career path chosen yet,” said Brian Provo, the owner of Alliance Machine and an Elk River graduate himself. “There’s a good living to be made for a lot of people.

“There’s a lot of manufacturing in Sherburne County, and we’re all in desperate need of help. I’d give my eyeteeth for a dozen more people right now.”

People are needed to be machinists and to work with robotics and other forms of automation. These jobs do not align very well with the stereotypical images people have a factory laborers.

“Ninety percent of the job is monitoring robots and computers,” said Provo, who also serves on the Elk River Economic Development Authority. “They do less handwork than … I do in a day. A lot of it’s like the work of a brain surgeon. Measure twice. Cut once.”

These workers need to come in with some experience and baseline knowledge. That’s why they are looking to high schools and two-year tech schools for help.

“The manufacturers want to see how we can improve the skilled labor force, and prepare kids for good jobs that are and will be out there,” Elk River High School Principal Terry Bizal said.  “And we want see what they can do to help us make the most of our curriculum.”

Does that mean scaling back in one area that is fading to embrace another that is taking off? Does that mean apprenticeships or internships for high school students? Maybe it means schools borrow equipment a couple months at a time to train kids how to use real world technology that is state of the art.

“We need to take a step back,” Provo said. “Whatever is being done now is not working. The unemployment rate shows that. I have jobs that can’t be filled, and there’s people all over town that can’t find work.”

Wilfahrt said the ideas were pouring out around the table Sept. 18.

“I was so pleasantly surprised to see the expressions on people’s faces, as you could see the gears turning as ideas were coming out,” he said.

In addition to Bizal, the Sherburne County Manufacturers Connection was attended by Salk Middle School Principal Julie Athman as well as TA Flatland, a magnet school teacher there. There were also several teachers from the Elk River High School, including: Paul Nelson, Shane Netzinger, Jon Ostercamp and Tim Wick. The Superintendent of Princeton Schools Rick Lahn, Joe Glenn of Glenn Metalcraft and Cory Lenz of J&J Machine of Elk River were in attendance. Provo and Matt James  of M & M Machine have also been part of the Sherburne County Manufacturers Connection.

One thing manufacturers discovered, Wilfahrt said, is that tours of area businesses stopped as the economy soured. Funds used to bus kids to businesses dried up. An official at the meeting from the Central Minnesota Workforce Center suggested he might know of a group that could provide such funding.

“We would love to give kids a chance to see what’s produced locally and what career opportunities are out there,” Wilfahrt said.

What else could come of this past week’s meeting is yet to be determined. But the Elk River Economic Development Department sees a bright future.

“Some cement laborers make more than my guys but they only work three months of the year,” Provo said. “This is a good, stable income with benefits in a climate-controlled environment. And you’re just as worthy at 20 years old as you are at 60.”